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PC recording

This describes recording using a PC only. I have no idea how you record audio with a Mac. Although I use WinXP the principles, and the look of the Windows sound mixer have not really changed much since Windows 3 in the early 1990s. It assumes you are using a standard PC sound card, and a standard Windows soundcard microphone connected to the soundcard via a 3.5mm jack plug. You can just as well use a standard Windows laptop. Instead of a soundcard the microphone jack is usually on the side of the machine. Let's look at some of these components to check we have the right gear

mic in on a cheap motherboard
mic input on a cheap motherboard

mic in on a cheap motherboard
mic input on a Dell

sound card inputs

Look at the back of your PC - you will often find a group of three round sockets, often coloured red, green and blue. Hopefully your computer speakers are already plugged into one of the sockets - usually the green one.

The microphone input is often coloured red, and is indicated in the photos with an arrow. We are looking at microphones here, so we'll pick the red one. If you are connecting a sound source which is not a microphone - like your regular Minidisc recorder, then you use the blue socket, which is the line-in socket. Leave the speakers in the green socket, which is line-out.

If your PC is set to produce surround sound, you may find you cannot locate a mic input, or the microphone input is occupied by some of your speakers. In that case you will have to study the manual to identify how you enable the microphone input.

If you don't currently have a sound editor, download the open source (and free) editor Audacity. It works on the three most popular personal computing operating systems. It is a good editor, with all the features you need. You can also use this to make recordings. Locate the drop-down box shown below and select the microphone input.

bringing up the mic in Audacity

Turn the speakers down, and press the record button in Audacity (it is the third round button with the red dot inside). Speak into the microphone and you should get a display which looks like the image below - the blue track will follow the volume of your speech.

speech track in Audacity

If you recording looks more like a horizontal line, like the left-hand side of the image below, you have either not turned the microphone level slider up enough, or you have the microphone plugged into the wrong socket or not plugged in at all. Check and rectify this. If the problem persists, then you have to check under Audacity's Edit -> Preferences whether program is looking at your sound card for the input. If the blue trace looks like the right-hand side of the image below, then your microphone gain is too high for voice. The slider is next to the box that says Microphone. Move it to the left, and you should be able to get the recording under control so it looks like the trace above.

Low and high speech track levels in Audacity
Low and high speech track levels in Audacity

After you have recorded a section, press stop (fifth round button from the left). Turn the speakers up slowly. If you get howlround, this means your microphone is still active, being amplified and going to the speakers, which then feed back to the mic. To correct this double click on the mixer icon in the system tray, normally located on the bottom right of the screen

Windows playback mixer system tray button

This will bring up the Windows mixer

Windows playback mixer

Windows has two mixer panels - the playback mixer for what your hear and the record mixer for what you record. Many computer users have only ever seen and used the playback mixer which changes what they listen to. This is all you need at the moment, tick the mute box on the microphone slider, and the howlround should cease. Remember this control, as when you have the microphone outside, it is useful to hear what the mic picks up, so you will want to untick this box later on.

Press play (the green triangle) and you should hear your recording played back. Congratulations, you have now configured your system properly for recording. In principle, you should be able to get a long 3.5mm jack extension cable to extend the mcrophone cable, stick the microphone outside and be in a position to record your garden birds.

The shorter the extension cable can be, the better, so if your PC is a laptop and can be temporarily located nearer to the window you will be recording from, the better. Against this you have to put the fact that the machine generates noise, and so do you, so an extension length of about 2-5m is about right. More than that and you run the risk of picking up extraneous noise and hum.

Once you have the microphone aimed out of the window, and ideally within 5m of your birds, return to the windows mixer by double clicking the system tray loudspeaker. Turn your speakers volume control low, and uncheck the "Mute Microphone" check box. If there is an Advanced button, like there is on mine, press that. What this brings up varies from sound card to sound card. However, if there is a Mic Boost . You should now hear what is going outside through the computer speakers.

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  1. Sleeve is 0V ground as usual, tip is signal, and the ring is meant to be 2-5.5V from a 2k source http://www.microsoft.com/whdc/device/audio/speech/speechtech.mspx. If you are soldering you own extension lead leave the ring terminal open at the PC end.

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